• Vida Perez Velasquez: Oleo Soapworks

    Artisans create a bounty of shave soaps and creams for the traditional shaver that range up and down the spectrum in quality. Some are good, and some forgettable. I am disappointed in most of them. Oleo Soapworks, of Chicago, is an exception.

    Artisan Vida Perez Velazquez has created a range of superb shave soaps with intriguing scents that rival some of the big names. Luxurious lather, comfortable cushion and smooth glide characterize these soaps, their soothing aftershave properties especially notable.

    OBIE: I donít think I am being lofty in my description. Your soaps are exceptional in every way. What makes good shave soap?

    VIDA: Wet shavers, new and experienced, want easy to whip lather that is dense and creamy, lather that protects you from your blade while helping give a close and irritation free shave. As soap maker, I blend carefully selected ingredients and use a tested formula to create the kind of shave soap that will give you everything you want.

    OBIE: So then what puts the ďexceptionalĒ in Oleo Soapworks soaps?

    VIDA: Heh, thanks for that. To be honest, Iíve never referred to my soap as anything beyond good. Like many beginners, I looked at other popular shaving soaps available in an effort to find some common threads. I eventually went all soap nerdy and studied fatty acid profiles before deciding on what to put into my soaps. You want dense and creamy lather that doesnít strip your skin or leave it tight feeling. I blew up several dozen test-batches in the process, to say the least.

    OBIE: On your site, you emphasize using natural products rather organic. Why did you see the need in distinguishing between natural and organic?

    VIDA: I intentionally distinguish between the two for the sake of transparency. The organic label is very popular right now, so much that itís often used simply to sell more product. The actual legal organic certification involves more than just slapping it on the label for curb appeal. Once you add lye and water ó two items that cannot be organic ó what youíre left with is soap that is made containing some natural ingredients.

    OBIE: What makes the basis of your soaps? Youíre not tallow.

    VIDA: The primary ingredient is Stearic Acid, followed by Shea and Kokum butters, which are naturally high in Stearic Acid as well, but also contain Oleic Acid, which is gentler on the skin.

    OBIE: Tallow, then, does not necessarily a fine soap make.

    VIDA: Itís definitely not required. There are fantastic tallow soaps and ones that arenít so great. The same can be said for vegan soaps.

    OBIE: Then why do some soap makers go tallow and others not? Is it a question of tradition? Something else perhaps?

    VIDA: It could be any number of reasons, from personal preference to access to the ingredients. When I first started making bath soap, I used tallow because of the way it felt on my skin. As I moved into shaving soap, I saw some strong opinions favoring tallow soap. So I challenged myself to develop a vegan base soap that performed similarly.

    OBIE: Are current trends in shave soaps moving away from tallow base to vegetable?

    VIDA: No, not really. Iíve actually seen more soap makers gravitating towards tallow, and I myself am privately testing some tallow formulations.

    OBIE: What is your process of making your shave soaps?

    VIDA: It starts a day or two prior to planning how much will be made, organizing all the materials and tools and setting up the workspace. The day of production starts early by melting and blending base oils and prepping lye water. Beyond that, itís a lot of pouring, mixing, checking temperatures and watching the clock. At the end of a soaping day Iíve got anywhere from 15-25 gallons of shaving soap ready for scenting and packaging.

    OBIE: Do you do some things or use specific methods that other soap makers donít? In other words, whatís your magic?

    VIDA: Nah, no magic here ó or voodoo, as itís been called by some. Once you find a formula that works you stick to it no matter what latest new fangled oil is being touted as all the rage. Itís tempting to always have a new release with a secret ingredient, but customers want to know that the product theyíre putting on their face isnít the result of a fad or whim.

    OBIE: Were you influenced by any of the well- established shave soaps? D.R. Harris, Tabac, Mitchellís Wool Fat, Martin de Candre, Czech & Speake, and others ó did they influence you?

    VIDA: No. With the exception of Proraso, I hadnít even heard of these large commercial brands until about 2 months after I started making shaving soap. Iíd first heard about artisans like Stirling, Catieís Bubbles and several others. Some of those are the brands I researched in the beginning.

    OBIE: May we conclude, then, that what makes a fine soap, one that meets the discriminating shaverís requirements, is how itís made and what ingredients, scents and combinations thereof, are used in creating it?

    VIDA: There is definitely an art and lots of science to making good soap. It takes months of experimentation, tweaking and much more time for testing.

    OBIE: And then you have the challenge of the right scents.

    VIDA: Creating and selecting scents is a rabbit hole all itís own. The funny thing here is that there are so many variables ó like water used to lather or skin type ó that often a soap that works exceptionally well for one or ten users may not work for others.

    OBIE: I must say, all this from an artist with a musical and business background. How do we get from that to making shave soaps? How did it start?

    VIDA: Well yeah, about that. . . Some things are constants, right? Music was a family thing ó thanks Dad ó and business was something that caught my eye at a fairly young age. With all that, Iíve always had problem skin, so to speak ó thanks gain, Dad. I started making bath soap because of some chronic skin conditions that were aggravated by commercial soaps and moisturizers. I was more than a little annoyed to discover that commercial bath soap has its glycerin removed in the production process. That glycerin is then sold to the folks who make moisturizers. See where Iím going here? So, I made bath soap and moisturizer for just under a year.

    At the end of that first year my husband, whoís a daily shaver, asked if I could make a shaving soap for him. At this point heíd been using only a tub of Proraso, a Merkur DE and a brush we got on Amazon for a year. And here we are.

    OBIE: Did you do a lot of testing? Who were your testers?

    VIDA: Initially I did my testing in house ó literally at home ó and then I sent out a lot of soap in hopes that folks would try it out and give me candid feedback. Many did and thatís where I got the vegan base to where it is today. Currently I have a testing group of a couple dozen or so users who test soap bases and scents for me.

    OBIE: How did you select your scents?

    VIDA: Iím not a perfumer, nor do I play one on TV. Full disclosure here . . . Some of my scents are pre-mixed and some are my own creations.

    OBIE: And they all smell luscious to me.

    VIDA: I feel that guys get the best scents. In my opinion, the majority of fragrances for women smell hideous to me.

    OBIE: So then how do you zero in on the scents?

    VIDA: When picking scents or mixing them, I tend to lean heavily in favor of masculine scents. If a scent blend causes me to lean in, that to want to smell closer, Iíll make a small batch and send it to my testers or local folks for their feedback.

    OBIE: When creating our scents, at what point did you conclude you were ready?

    VIDA: Hmm . . . Probably when the folks testing my stuff started mentioning them and comparing them ó favorably ó to the more established brands and products.

    OBIE: Also, how did you select the names for your shave soaps? Youíre based in Chicago and the city is a big part of the name lineup.

    VIDA: Chicago does not get much love these days for reasons we all probably know and donít need to get into. I wanted to pay homage to my hometown by giving different neighborhoods a fragrance ó if it were up to me, what would Montrose Beach smell like? Hopefully that makes sense.

    OBIE: Oh, it does. How well I remember the life and the smells of Montrose Beach.

    VIDA: Aside from the Chicago lineup, I will name soaps after their scent or some other personally significant concept.

    OBIE: I have the Windy City, Pella Toscana ó now called New City ó El Caballero and Irving Park scents and like them all. My sweetest spot, though, is Irving Park. Love the scent. May we expect more scents in the future?

    VIDA: Absolutely! Some will be in the Chicago lineup and others will be seasonal or my take on a popular fragrance.

    OBIE: Do you have plans to offer samples in the future?

    VIDA: I offered them initially and discontinued them at the end of July due to the work and cost involved in preparing them. Really canít say if Iíll bring them back, but hey, never say never.

    OBIE: You also have a small lineup of aftershaves. Will you expand it?

    VIDA: The goal is to have a matching aftershave for every fragrance where appropriate, because Iím not sure anyone really wants to smell like mentholated Cherry.

    OBIE: So then, where do we go from here? Do you plan to expand? With the quality of products you now offer, and their popularity, especially here on Straight Razor Place, I see Oleo Soapworks soaring.

    VIDA: As a solo operator who still has a day job, Iím taking it one little step at a time. I like the product focus I have right now and will likely keep it there for a little bit while I get more established. In the future, Iíd like to release tallow based shaving soap and perhaps some other bath and menís grooming products.